Last night the godfather of dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry and his band performed at the Sydney Opera House as part of Brian Eno’s Luminous festival. Perry has always been a mad bugger, and now at 73 years old, he’s a mad ancient bugger, complete with purple-dyed hair and beard, gold-sprayed shoes and loads of bling. His half-open eyes show the toll that years of ganja and other drugs have taken, but at least he is still alive, a fact that should give Iggy Pop hope for a long future ahead of him!
Perry’s band was a five piece, consisting of guitar, bass, drums and two keyboardists. Although not quite as advanced in years as Perry himself, the band were clearly experienced hands and looked very relaxed as delivered a very danceable dub groove for a solid two hours. Over recent years, the Opera House has become more expansive in its musical selections, which is great, but the fixed seating in the Opera Theatre does curtail the natural instinct to get up and boogie to danceable acts like this one. It was no surprise then, that the side aisles quickly filled up with groovers.
On the mixing desk was the legendary Adrian Sherwood and this must be the first time I’ve been to a gig where the mixer was almost as famous as the act on stage. Sherwood created the On-U Sound label back in 1979 and was a key figure in the UK reggae scene as well as being a driving force behind the dub-influenced industrial funk act Tackhead. Since then, Sherwood has dabbled in a wide range of styles as a producer and performed in his own right. He has been collaborating with Perry for over 10 years and clearly knows the material inside out. Given that dub music from its origins is fundamentally a studio creation, there are challenges recreating that in a live setting (although effects pedals, samplers and other technological developments do help). Fortunately, doing just that is the idea behind Sherwood’s creation of On-U Sound in the first place, and the years of experience shone through. This was perhaps the best mixed concert I have ever attended.
And the music itself? Some of the classics made an appearance, including “Blackboard Jungle Dub (version 2)”, which is one of the all-time dub classics and probably my favourite Lee “Scratch” Perry track. It is also a great example of a dub track that was very much a studio creation, but the band’s rendition was superb. Like so much dub, the original was an instrumental and for the live performance Perry, somewhat bizarrely, chose to sing lines from “Where-ever I lay my hat, that’s my home”. A strange choice, but it almost worked. Perry was first and foremost a producer, a creator of a distinctive sound. He was never a great singer (witness this track from 1982 for example) and age has not really improved his sound. His timing and sound was often uneven, his words largely imprehensible, but sometimes the eccentricity faded to the background and the singing and music blended perfectly. The uplifting “Kilimanjaro” was a case in point: fueled with the rather bizarre Rastafarian imagery that is so much a part of reggae, it was a triumph.
There were some disappointing omissions, I’d have loved to hear Disco Devil to name just one, but that really reflects the volume of Perry’s output over the years.
In all it was an extremely enjoyable concert, with an excellent sound fronted by one of the crazier giants of music history. It was an opportunity I was glad I didn’t miss.